Youth Development Resource Center to build data capacity of grantees

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A child receives a gift at a holiday celebration at the Matrix Center in Osborn, one hub of youth development opportunities in Detroit. The Youth Development Resource Center will work with organizations doing that work to provide techical assistance around collecting and using data.

As the Foundation has restructured and intensified its youth development work this year, it’s time to introduce one new key to that work – the Youth Development Resource Center.

The YDRC is one piece of our youth development strategy pie. It’s the piece that will provide technical assistance around collecting and using data to learn and improve the youth development system together.

And it’s headed by a familiar face. Sara Plachta-Elliott was an evaluation fellow at the Foundation for three years as she completed her doctorate from Brandeis University. For more than a decade, she’s been a community-based researcher and evaluator, and a youth worker herself.

We caught up with her this week to find out more about the YDRC and its mission and goals.

What’s the Youth Development Resource Center all about? 

Sara: Its mission is to support Skillman-funded youth development programs in using data and learning to continually improve their programs. We hope that with the right capacity-building supports in place, Skillman’s youth development grantees and partners can share more data on how many kids are participating in high-quality programs in the six targeted neighborhoods.

Having shared evidence of how we’re engaging youth will ultimately help the Foundation attract investors into Detroit, so we can make sure all youth living in these neighborhoods have access to great youth development opportunities.

How important is data to youth development work?

Sara: Data is basically another word for information – information that youth development workers, youth programs, and systems need to learn and improve. Youth workers need to spend most of their time connecting with youth and helping them develop skills through engaging, fun activities. Data is only useful to youth development workers when it’s not a burden – when it’s easy to access and learn from regularly. I’ve been there as a youth worker myself, entering data into a computer late at night after spending the day interacting with youth and their parents. So I know that ultimately, we need data that’s really practical and assessable to youth workers. Information they can use to reach out to youth who aren’t showing up to programs or school, and data that can help them improve their activities so youth are fully engaged and learning. We also need data to better understand the availability and quality of opportunities in each neighborhood as a whole. How many youth are we reaching through youth programs in each neighborhood? Are they high quality? Are they making a difference in youth’s lives? These are questions we need to keep asking and answering with better data.

What kinds of data do organizations collect typically?

Sara: Most organizations collect basic data such as the young person’s age, gender, and race, as well as daily attendance. Smaller programs that do amazing work with youth sometimes don’t have access to good technology, so that’s something we’re taking a look at. Daily attendance is basic but surprisingly essential, as studies have found that youth benefit the most from youth development programs when they attend regularly and are engaged for at least two years in positive youth development. It can be art, music, sports or leadership programs, but youth need ongoing engagement for success. Just like school attendance, youth cannot learn and grow in youth programs if they don’t come regularly.

Beyond the basics, many cutting-edge youth programs and systems are finding ways to collect data on youth’s school performance – attendance, suspensions, and grades. Knowing whether a young person is chronically absent from school can help youth workers address whatever issues get in the way of them going to school every day, whether it’s conflict with peers, family issues, or a lack of food in the house.

What defines a high-quality program?

Sara: “High quality” is something we’ll actually be defining together in 2014. Generally speaking, quality standards focus on what it takes for a youth program to offer youth safe, enriching learning opportunities run by caring, trained staff and volunteers. The YDRC has hired Ellen Gannett, the director of the National Institute on Out of School Time, to lead us through a process of developing a set of youth program quality standards that resonate with our work in Detroit’s neighborhoods. Most cities that attract national investment in youth development system building have come together to create and adopt a set of program quality standards. Grand Rapids, for instance, is one of those cities that developed standards, and then won a national grant from the Wallace Foundation that offers youth programs more opportunities to continually improve quality. The standards become a guide for youth programs to assess and improve their own quality on a continuous basis.

What are some of your early goals for the YDRC?

Sara: Early on, I’ll be focused on listening locally and nationally for best practices that we can share across the network of youth programs in the six neighborhoods. Each youth program has unique needs when it comes to collecting and using data effectively. We have such a great variety of nonprofits that offer youth programs in Detroit – from local chapters of national organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and City Year – to local nonprofits like the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and Don Bosco Hall. On very tight budgets, youth programs in Detroit and across the country are really innovating. After a period of listening and learning, the YDRC will offer a set of capacity-building opportunities, in partnership with the Youth Development Alliance and the Skillman Foundation. We’re looking for solutions that help us get better at collecting and using data together, so if you have ideas please reach out to me!

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